Thursday, August 11, 2005

View From The Away End

For a more dispassionate objective assessment of the club's close-season activity and our prospects for the forthcoming campaign, we turned to Danny of Bitter And Blue, Pete of the new-look Round And White, Dom of Mist Rolling In From The Trent..., Terry Venerables of Footballist, Swiss Toni of Cheer Up Alan Shearer and Watford fan Jez.

As you'll see, they range from the cautiously positive to the sharply pessimistic...

Danny: “Newcastle United. A club that can make my very own Manchester City appear a prototype for off-field stability and on-field success. Goings on off the field has ensured they remain front-page news, whilst on-field underachievement has led to constant speculation about managerial tenures on the back pages.

And true to type, this summer has been no different. Off field has seen the Bellamy saga drag on a while before he headed off to Blackburn. The signings of Nicky Butt and Patrick Kluivert were disastrous at best, and both have now left the club. Laurent Robert took his sniping with him to Portsmouth and with Bowyer on his way to Birmingham, suddenly the squad had a harmonious look to it. To solve the striker shortage, Souness then courted Nicolas Anelka – a player of undoubted talent but who has demanded his way out of every club he has been at.

Bowyer turned down a deal at Birmingham, fearing their fans’ reaction to him (I didn’t realise he was fans’ player of the year at Newcastle?) and then launched an attack at Freddie Shepherd, claiming he was being forced out. Robert also added his two-penneth over the managerial credentials of Souness which earned him a fine from the club, and which revealed that it was only a loan deal he had left on.

On the eve of the season, Jermaine Jenas signalled intent to leave, that he could not live in the goldfish bowl atmosphere around Newcastle. And here was me thinking the only goldfish bowls Newcastle players were accustomed to were the ones they drank out of…

The Newcastle board have often been criticised (and rightly so on many occasions) but one thing they have done more often than not is back the manager with a transfer kitty. This was evident as they backed Souness to bring in Scott Parker and Emre. Parker got lost somewhat in the system at Chelsea but he was undoubtedly a major factor in establishing Charlton and has plenty to prove (especially with the World Cup coming up). I am a close follower of Italian football and for me the signing of Emre could turn out to be a superb one. He is a small player, but very tough (think Gheorge Hagi) and his touch and vision are excellent.

One ‘signing’ that has also been made is that Kieron Dyer has penned a contract extension (or soon will). Forgive me, but I cannot see why they would offer him in the region of £60k a week when he has brought numerous off-field problems and not put together any sort of run of form together during his whole time at the club.

Souness is also still courting a striker and would love to snap up Michael Owen, but I doubt he wants to return to a side outside of the top four, if even at all. Defensive reinforcements are also necessary as a series of average players – Hughes, O’Brien etc are not top drawer.

From an outside perspective looking at the club, there doesn’t appear to be any real long-term structure or plan in place. I cannot see Souness being there in the long run, which means that they will be in the same position yet again a season or so down the line and I fear that Shearer will be thrown in far too early as a manager. The board appear to have this unhealthy desire for immediate success, whilst discarding everything else.

As the season is again upon us, there appears to be a demand for Champions’ League qualification. I can’t see it happening as the top three are set and I think Liverpool will show more focus on the title this season. With the additions that have been made to the squad I think a UEFA place is most definitely achievable as it looks like Newcastle, Spurs and Middlesbrough are the strongest of the non-top four sides. Souness will need a bit of luck with injuries so he can get a settled side in place and definitely needs to find some goals to go with Shearer’s guaranteed twenty. But most of all, they need to avoid the off-field distractions that have plagued the club the past few seasons.

Pete: “I think I should start this post off with some good news. Nicky Butt has left. It's actually very good news indeed, as it means Newcastle fans no longer have to put up with his dismal performances and with his loan move to Birmingham he also has (I'm praying here) little chance of playing in an England shirt ever again.

But that's about it as far as good news goes.

The summer signings have been so-so. Parker and Emre are not convincing buys in my book, although I admit I'm open to surprises. Parker will have to recapture his Charlton form (a while back now) to make his move a successful one though, while Emre smacks of Souness's apparent desperation for a ‘big(-ish) name’ player.

Signing ex-Rangers captain Craig Moore (world class eh?) is a positive step to correct defensive frailties, but this is also the same player sacked last season by Borussia Moenchengladbach for drinking. Hmmm. A man after Graeme's heart perhaps?

The return of Hugo Viana to pre-season training may fill the gap on the left wing left by Robert, but he remains another signing (along with Bowyer) who really needs to put in some consistently good

With Newcastle out of the Intertoto Cup, and Jenas making worrying noises, I'm guessing that Magpie fans will be glad to see the back of the summer break more than most other football fans.

Signing Owen would be real coup, but having a world class forward won't propel Newcastle into the top four if the midfield can't support him and the back four leak goals on a regular basis. After all, they've had Shearer for quite a while now. Nevertheless, the Toon Army will be demanding a replacement for Super Al on a daily basis now and Owen would certainly be the man for the job. However, if Man Utd really are in the market for the fifth choice Galatico as well, then his destination is a foregone conclusion.

It's not an ideal start to the season really. Sixth or seventh and good cup run is the best I can foresee, which is unlikely to keep Souness his job, but frankly that's a good thing.”

Dom: “I have to admit that I actually have a soft spot for a couple of Premiership teams and Newcastle are one of them (your first game opposition the other!). I don't know whether this stems from my irrational hatred of Sunderland and Middlesbrough or not, but it more likely originated from Psycho's testimonial which saw Keegan's entertainers field a full strength line-up and a large friendly Geordie following turn up at the City Ground.

I've been to St James’s once and it was great, which when you consider we'd lost 5-0 is a strange comment. We'd already been relegated it was last game of the season so we weren't too concerned by Asprilla's almost single-handed demolishing act – cheering every goal that went in and having some good banter with the home support. My first memory of Newcastle comes from the late 80s, again we'd been paired on the last day of the season this time at the City Ground, I can't remember the score, but I remember more than a couple of supporters climbing the floodlights!

That was then though, this is now - I don't need to tell you you're a huge club, you know. I don't need to tell you that but for some poor performances in recent finals your trophy cabinet would be filling up nicely. I can tell you however you've got to win something soon and to do it you need shot of Sourness.

I really did not understand his appointment. My friend Andy, a Blackburn supporter, celebrated like he'd won the lottery when Sourness left. His past record with Rangers et al may have been good – but what has he achieved lately? Bad tactical decisions that saw you limp out of the UEFA Cup and a poor position in the Premiership, any unrest caused by Bellamy and Bowyer in your dressing room he could probably achieve with his eyes closed – ask Dwight Yorke.

I look at the quality in your squad and know you should be doing better, Sourness has actually managed a couple of good signings this summer (Parker and Emre), but at the same time has managed a couple of bad decisions in the transfer market. I know the central midfield role only has two places, but letting Butt go out on loan, with JJ left as the only centre mid who can play the defensive mid role looks wrong – especially considering the rumours circulating about JJ's future. Another player I was surprised to see Sourness let go was Ambrose, he's still young and is still improving as a player and could have been an asset this season.

Sourness seems obsessed with landing a striker – if I were him I'd be reviewing the back four. In Given you have a great keeper, but the players in front of him are far from great. How Bramble is still a Newcastle player confuses me – I have no confidence in him as a defender and he doesn't appear to have much himself. Boumsong looks the part, but the arrival (in familiar Sourness style) of former Rangers thug Craig Moore won't strengthen your defence – he'll be too busy getting suspended to be helping the team.

There is still a nucleus of good players in your squad that with a little tweaking could become a great team, there is also the worry though that this team could disintegrate before achieving that greatness. If Sourness's team start off badly he'll inevitably face the chop and you'll have to suffer another wasted season – the problem is when you come to start again the next time Shearer really will be gone, another trophyless season and new contract or not Dyer won't want to stick around will he? Given may move on and JJ may have already jumped ship.

This season is now or never for Newcastle – I honestly believe that, I just wish you were in better hands then you might get the glory your support deserves. I can see you finishing higher than last season – possibly 8th and you having a good run in the Cups again – but Champions’ League football is only coming back to St James’s Park when you have a new manager I'm afraid.

Terry: “For too long Newcastle United’s football has had nothing to do with media interest in the club. Back in April, the Bowyer-Dyer incident shone a light on the need for radical personnel changes. It seemed inconceivable that both could stay on Tyneside. The fact that both would want to stick around wasn’t worth contemplating.

So what happens this summer? Well, we discover that you couldn’t shift Bowyer even if you painted him gold, shoved up Patrick Vieira up his arse and called him Michael Essien. Upshot: as we approach the 2005/06 season all media and neutrals will be awaiting the next set of baffling antics to come from St James’s Park – because it’s not just hothead Lee and glittering Kieron who are capable of jaw-dropping insanity. Did I hear talk of Nicolas Anelka and… Mark Viduka!!!

Although this sounds like some kind of awful comedy roadshow there are positive events that are worthy of attention. Newcastle made signings. In particular, Scott Parker and Emre both had other Toffee-flavoured European (!) options – but they chose Newcastle! And why? Assuming that there was more than money involved, at the heart of all the shit that has surrounded Newcastle United in previous months there is something of a belief in Souness and what the club can achieve – even in the short term.

For now, forget about not playing in Europe, forget about JJ being unsettled and pay attention to the likes of Bobby Robson arguing a very good case for Michael Owen joining the club. With two or three more top quality signings, Newcastle will again feel like a club who can achieve and with that it would seem like an odd club to feel unsettled at. For years, Manchester United fans laughed along to ‘Nobody likes us but we don’t care’ because that doesn’t matter when you’re winning trophies. In the same way that ‘what he
had to work with’ cost David O’Leary his job at Leeds, Souness will be regarded as facing an impossible job (though some would say that he created this for himself). With more signings to come and Souness showing that he can work with the personnel that he has at his disposal, it’s just possible that Geordies will soon be laughing along to ‘Everyone thinks we’re a joke but we don’t care’.

Realistic target for this 2005/06? Top six finish (a massive improvement from 2004/05’s 14th position). Will they achieve this? As long as it’s their football making the headlines, yes!”

Toni: “I sat down to last night to one of the most important tasks of the year: the selection of my fantasy football team. Over the years, I have made a few absolutely blinding selections. Your Matthew Le Tissiers and Thierry Henrys are all very well, but the selections that have given me the most satisfaction have been the ones who cost tuppence and came up trumps – your Claus Jensens, Claus Lundekvams, Rory Delaps and Stuart Downings. The players that you picked up from the bargain basement and who chipped in with precious points at crucial moments (although I like to put my selection of Silas down to temporary insanity).

Perhaps more than any other club, Newcastle Utd has a proud tradition of providing me with key players: Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Phillipe Albert, Nolberto Solano, John Beresford, Rob Lee and, of course, Alan Shearer have all made regular appearances in my side as I lifted title after title in competition with my mates. As I looked at this year's player list though, the St James’s cupboard looks bare, and not a single player in the famous black and white stripes is going to make the cut. Goalkeeper? Not with that defence. Defenders? No chance. Midfield? Doesn't look like producing many goals. Wingers? What wingers? Strikers? What strikers? Michael Chopra?

I know that fantasy league form is not always the best guideline for judging a player's worth, but it strikes me that this it is a pretty sad indictment of the current Newcastle squad that I can't see a single player worth investing in (except possible JJ, but only then because he's likely to move on to a better side and is thus decent value). Is Graeme Souness the man to make something out of nothing? To rebuild the squad and bring exciting football back to Tyneside? Judging by his alienation of Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert – no, I just can’t see it. Even if he had the talent, would he really be given the opportunity to do so by a chairman who seems to have all of the brains of a small piece of cheese? Doubtful.

I like Newcastle Utd. There's something about the passion of the fans and their long, patient wait for success that strikes a chord in this Wolves fan. I'm afraid to say that I think you are going to have to be patient a little longer yet. I predict a struggle to finish inside the top six of the Premiership and no joy in the cups. Sorry about that. I hope I'm wrong.

Jez: “New signings, takeover rumours, Shay Given’s apathy, Lee Bowyer not being able to find anyone to pay those ludicrous wages, Emre and Scott Parker coming along to suckle from the teats of the black and white cash cow. It must be close season at Newcastle United. It’s difficult for me to watch and I’m not even a fan. At least Blackburn and Manchester City are vying with Newcastle as people you wouldn’t want to share a hotel with at your work’s Christmas party.

I just don’t see Souness as the answer, but the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Here’s an idea for you: take a leaf out of AFC Wimbledon’s book, and even more so FC United of Manchester. Reclaim your magnificent heritage from the idiots in charge that are redistributing the money you spend in a fashion that would worry Michael Jackson. Start a new club, support it fully and just watch it rise with pride and passion. In a few years buy St James’s Park from the egotists and allow all fans to be shareholders. Go on, enjoy yourselves. You know why you should, because those running the club are laughing all the way to the bank.

Predicted position: what will it take for change, relegation?”

Thanks to Danny, Pete, Dom, Terry, Toni and Jez for their thoughts.


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